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The future of our town centres: how local authorities can help

The future of our town centres: how local authorities can help

26th June 2018

With several high profile retailers closing stores, the face of the high street is changing. Local authorities have a key role to play in rejuvenating local economies

Throughout the country, high streets are experiencing a huge amount of change. In the last few months Mothercare, Maplin, Wine Rack, New Look, Prezzo, Bryon and Jamie’s Italian have all announced closures and most recently House of Fraser has stated it will close 31 of its 59 shops, potentially affecting 6,000 jobs. It is not just retailers but banks, building societies and other local services too, all of which add to the increasing number of vacant units in town centres across the UK.

The closures can be attributed to two main factors – shopping patterns are changing as consumers increasingly shop online, creating more competition for traditional high street brands in a time of depressed consumer spending. The resulting reduction in footfall is exacerbated by a sharp increase in operating costs that local businesses have experienced, particularly the well documented rise in business rates felt by many.

Many local authorities are therefore starting to think carefully about their role in rejuvenating town centres. It is clear that a more innovative approach is required to attract people back to the high street, but it is hard to determine the extent to which local authorities should intervene and how entrepreneurial they themselves should become to save their high streets.

Over the past five years, local councils have spent close to £4bn buying shopping centres, leisure centres and office blocks. This has been driven by two objectives. Firstly, a desire to protect and improve town centres in an environment in which the private sector is increasingly pulling away, and secondly to generate new sources of income for local authorities given the strain on the public purse and desire to keep council taxes low.

On paper this is positive, but local authorities need to have a clear strategy in place for the economic regeneration of their local areas. Town centre redevelopment is a complex issue, not least because of the uncertain property market but also because town centres are more than a shopping experience for local residents, they are an important part of community life.

Each decision should be made based on a gap in the market, with a clear plan for how it is going to be filled. There needs to be a strong business case to demonstrate the tangible benefits, for instance analysis of how footfall and spend will directly increase as a result of investment in town centres. Without this, there is a risk that local authorities will take on property that does not give a sufficient return over time, draining resources and potentially impacting on important local services.

Specialist consultancies working with both the public and private sector can provide a unique insight and help minimise potential risks on such projects. Thorough research and analytical work is needed to prepare the strategies, delivery frameworks, retail assessments and planning permissions required to rejuvenate a town centre.

Local authorities should also look beyond traditional retail and consider how town centres will be used in the future. There are many potential facets to this, including the leisure sector, community events and experiences, and the development of evening economies through extended opening hours. The most successful strategies are often based on a sense of local identity and a range of initiatives that local people can identify with that ultimately draws them back to the local high street. This makes community engagement in the process vital from the offset.

The face of the high street is changing and local authorities have a key role to play in rejuvenating the local economy and maintaining a sense of community. Their focus should be on redesigning town centres into attractive, multipurpose areas through the creation of a robust strategies with strong public and private collaboration. 

Article by Philippa Curran, Associate Director as featured in Building Magazine.